Black-Footed Penguin

black footed penguins pic

Scientific Name:Spheniscus demersus

Kingdom: Animalia


Class: Aves

Order: Sphenisciformes

Family: Spheniscidae

Distribution: Black-footed penguins are found exclusively in Africa. They are known to breed between Namibia and South Africa. When not breeding, the birds can be found across Africa's southern shore, from Gabon to Mozambique, generally within 40 kilometers of the ocean shore.

Habitat: Black-footed penguins live along Africa's southern shoreline in and around the cold, nutrient rich Benguela current. They breed and moult on rocky, offshore islands.

Description: Black-footed penguins are medium sized penguins. When fully developed, they are approximately 60 centimeters long and weigh between two and four kilograms. These penguins have black backs, faces, wings, feet and beaks. The front of their torso is white with some black spots and a black stripe across their chest. White stripes run around their faces to above their eyes. Juveniles have slate gray backs and lack the facial pattern that the adults have. The adult coloration and facial patterns develop over the first three to four years of their life

Diet: Black footed penguins feed primarily on pelagic fish such as anchovies, pilchards (anchovies), horse mackerel and small fish.  They are also known to eat crustaceans.

Behavior: They can reach speeds of 15 mph while swimming after prey and can remain underwater for 2 ½ minutes.  They most often swim jumping in and out of the water, which is called “porpoising”.  A group while hunting will venture up to 30 miles away in search of food.  They molt yearly loosing all of their feathers in 5-12 days.  The average lifespan is 10-11 years, with the highest recorded age of 24 years.  They are well known for their donkey like braying call.  

Breeding: They reach breeding maturity in two to six years, typically in four years.  They breed in nesting colonies usually found on coastal islands, where they construct their nests from their excriments, called guano.  They are monogamous, breeding with the same mate, generally returning to the same nest year after year.  They will breed at all times of the year, with the peaks in November and March because they typically have two broods a year, laying at least two greenish eggs.  The incubation period is 39 days and the parents share equally in attending the nest, switching duties daily.  The offspring will remain in the nest for 30 days until they molt and grow feathers.

Adaptations: All penguins are adapted to withstand cool temperatures and have thus evolved behavioral and morphological features that help them retain heat. For example, penguins have a thick layer of fat under the skin and more densely packed feathers than other birds, both of which helps prevent heat loss. Penguins also preen themselves, using oily secretions from the uropygial gland order to “waterproof” their feathers and protect them from the cold water. More specifically, the Black-footed penguin is also well-adapted to warmer climates. Panting, evaporative cooling, and exposing their feet, the only part of their body not insulated by feathers, aids in releasing heat. The Black-footed penguin has also evolved behavioral patterns that have proved to be beneficial adaptations to protect themselves from solar radiation, such as not avoiding to spend time at the nesting site other than at dusk and dawn, as well as establishing nesting sites in burrows or other sheltered sites.

Conservation: The Black-footed penguin populations have faced a large decline in the recent century. It is estimated that around 120,000 animals remain of the 1,5 million Black-footed penguins at the beginning of the 20th century. The species is now listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Initially, what led to the decrease in Black-footed penguin populations was the collection of penguin eggs and guano at breeding colonies, but today, this threat has been largely eliminated. Currently, the two most pertinent threats to the survival of the Black-footed penguin species are the risk of oil pollution and competition with commercial fisheries for the pelagic fish prey. A major spill in 2000 threatened as much as 40% of the Black-footed penguin population. Conservation groups have become very effective in rescuing “oiled penguins” and returning them to the wild. Also, competition with the Cape Fur Seal for breeding sites and food resources, predation of seals and sharks, as well as predation of the eggs and chicks by avian predators, pose a danger to the survival of the Black-footed penguin.

Miscellaneous: The Black-footed penguin has a very distinct mating call, ressembling the sound of a donkey. Hence, this penguin species is often referred to as the “Jackass penguin”. It is the only penguin species to inhabit the continent of Africa and the largest family of birds in which all of the species are flightless.




Lynch, Wayne. Penguins of the World. Firefly Books, 1997

Muller-Schwarze. BEHAVIOR OF PENGUINS. New York: State University of New York Press

Sadava, Heller, Orians, Purves, Hillis. Life: The Science of Biology. Sinauer, 2008.